Monday, July 21, 2008

ANCIENT-FUTURE WORSHIP by Robert E. Webber

Almost 20 years ago, I met the late dean of historical theologians, Jaroslav Pelikan, at a conference at Carthage College.

“Do you know what you evangelicals need?” Pelikan asked me.

“What?” I said, taken aback by his forthrightness.

“You need to stop being so Jesus-centered.”

I was too stunned to say much.

Seeing my confusion, Pelikan explained: “You evangelicals need to be more thoroughly Trinitarian.”

That was the extent of our conversation, but I’ve been thinking about it since that 1991 encounter.

If I read Bob Webber’s posthumously published Ancient-Future Worship (Baker, 2008) correctly, I believe Bob would agree with Pelikan.

Pelikan did not, of course, mean that evangelicals should actually talk about Jesus less, love him less dearly, or follow him less nearly. Pelikan meant rather that we should regard him in his proper context as the second person of the Holy Trinity. If we forget to understand Jesus in his Trinitarian context, we forget the cosmic purpose of Jesus’ incarnation and we collapse God's grand mission in Jesus into one or another form of religious individualism. Jesus came to save me from my sins, yes. But the mission of the Trinity is to restore and renew the entire creation to fellowship with the divine community of love.

In his latest volume on worship, Webber moves into this Trinitarian territory.

The book is subtitled Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative. God’s narrative begins before the creation and stretches infinitely into the future of a restored creation. In worship, my own narrative—my story about the genesis of my troubles and my renewal of hope for a life freed from failure—should never become the narrow frame into which we squeeze God’s story. Rather, our stories are to be caught up into God’s story and find expanded meaning there.

Evangelicals—indeed most Western Christians—think about the biblical story like this: Creation, Sin and Fall, Cross and Redemption.

But in some of the church fathers, there is a different framework: Creation, Incarnation, and Eschatological Re-Creation. Webber turns especially to the second-century bishop Irenaeus and his theology of recapitulation to underscore this way of framing God’s story. (If you need a quick refresher on the theology of recapitulation, see my October 2007 blog post “What’s the Fuss about Recapitulation Theology?”)

If the middle term of our three-part story is Sin and Fall, the focus is on us, the problem-makers. But if the middle term is the Incarnation, the focus is on God, the problem-solver. In chapter 4, Bob's hip-pocket history of “How the Fullness of God’s Story Got Lost,” he writes about the neglect of the Word in medieval Western worship.
By the late medieval period the service of the Word with preaching was infrequent. The Mass was generally reduced to the eucharistic prayers. Because the Word was dropped and the focus [of] the Mass centered on the death of Christ, the whole story of God was not proclaimed in worship. The story was reduced to the death of Christ, his suffering, and the salvation that was brought through the sacraments.
The Reformers tried different correctives to this hypersacramentalism. But the Reformation liturgies retained one thing that distinguished them from the ancient church: “Worship now places greater attention on the individual’s condition before God. The vision of God to reclaim the whole world and redeem all flesh and matter through the victory of Christ over sin and death scarcely appears.”

Webber's purpose is to get us to reclaiming this larger vision. He does this by
  • showing us from early church texts that the renewal of all things in the Incarnation and the restoration of all things through Christ’s victory was the common theme of early church worship.
  • asking us to be Old Testament Christians as well as New Testament believers. This requires that we know the Hebrew Scriptures as background to the New Testament, but it also demands that we imitate the apostles by reading the Hebrew Scriptures as foreshadowings of what would happen in the Incarnation.
  • calling us to stick to the basics of worship—Word and Table. We must especially resist the idea that music is a fundamental element of worship, as many contemporary evangelicals have come to believe. Music can play an important role in worship, but unlike Word and Table, it is not of the essence. When people seek the presence of God in music, writes Webber, rather than in the Word or the Table, the accent shifts to the activity of the self in worship ("I will praise you," "I lift your Name on high," etc.).
  • inviting us to return to the ancient patterns of prayer that frame our petitions in the light of what God has done. Because this kind of prayer arises out of God's story, it does not grow out of our own needs of the moment or those of our friends. Thus we remember to pray "for the whole state of Christ's church and for the world." If God has demonstrated his love for the whole world, we can do no less than to pray big prayers for the whole world.
Ancient-Future Worship is a grand summing-up of Bob's increasingly urgent word to the church. His message is not optional. The breadth of the church's vision and the scope of its mission depend on understanding the mission of the Trinity as it seeks to restore and recreate not just us but the entire cosmos.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for this great review of a truly wonderful book. I'm of the firm opinion Bob Webber saved the best till last, serving up a distilled historical / theological elixir from a lifetime of passionate study of and thoughtful reflection on Christian worship.

    IN 2004 my wife and I found ourselves displaced by a church split. We were faced with the unusual opportunity to visit a broad spectrum of Churches in our area in search of a "new home" and faith-family.

    We visited Baptists and Methodists, Pentecostals and Roman Catholics, at least two different types of Presbyterians, Independent Bible Churches, Churches of Christ and the Antiochean Orthodox.

    We found the worship life of the Church in the exact state diagnosed and described by Bob Webber ins this book. Except for liturgical churches who employed trinitarian language in prescribed written form (i.e. a prayer book or set text,) the Trinity was nowhere to be seen or heard in public worship.

    Jesus was often spoken about; but seldom ever was there a clear proclamation of him as the human embodiment of the fulness of the Triune God. And again, except in the few churches we visited that used a lectionary for their scripture readings, the Hebrew scriptures were completely absent. So unlike the apostolic preaching in Acts and the theological propositions of the epistles the Gospel was never set in its context of salvation history.

    The big deal everywhere was the music, of course. Lots of wonderful music of many different styles. That seemed to be the main attraction, sometimes rivaled only by a lengthy sermon (often expertly crafted) based on a very brief passage of New Testament scripture.

    We often left worship exhilarated by the music and somewhat overwhelmed with Bible teaching content. But we were seldom "washed" with a healthy amount of the Word, nourished at the Table or re-energized by the story that Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again.

    Someone once said, "Wash an elephant if you want to do something big." Bob took on an elephantine task in contrasting our current worship ways with those of the Apostles and all the ancients. It's going to take many hearts, minds and hands to remember, repent and return.

    Darrell A. Harris

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  2. Darrell Harris: please do yourself the honor of seeking out a "high church" Missouri Synod congregation. I trust that there you will find the balance you are looking for,

    Should you ever be in the Phoenix area, you are invited to Mt Calvary at 1018 for the Divine Service. See: www.azlutheran.org/mtcalvary.

    Blessings in Christ Jesus!

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  3. many thanks, padredave1~

    i think that perhaps lutherans were one of the only groups we failed to connect with in '05, although i have many missouri synod friends through the robert e. webber institute for worship studies.

    i also failed in my post to mention we had also visited a couple different charismatic churches, one vineyard and one unaffiliated.

    we were eventually approached by a couple other families who had also been displaced in the same church split. they hoped to start a house-church, if i'd be willing to serve as pastor.

    after a couple months of discernment prayer, we began public worship ash wednesday of 2006. it has been one of the most blessed seasons of worship i've ever personally known.

    we access resources from the revised common lectionary, the book of common prayer, the lutheran book of worship, the methodist book of worship, many ancient christian writings and various other resources. we keep the liturgical exchanges simple so our children can join is.

    since there is virtually no overhead, we are able to be aggressive in our support of various missions and physical needs. it has been a complete joy.

    our missouri synod lutheran folk at the institute for worship studies contribute much to our worship sensibilities when we are in session, as well as to my house-church ministry. so thanks for the invite!

    when i'm in phoenix, i'll be there!
    shalom~
    darrell a. harris

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  4. David, thanks for the review. Now I’ve got to read Bob’s book. Bob’s passion for creating worship that facilitates communion with the Great, Eternal God of Creation was a challenge the church has yet to fully grasp. Apparently that passion comes through the pages of Ancient Future Worship.

    Bob’s commitment to writing – even as he knew his life here was ending - is only one of the things that made him seem bigger than life to many of us. Few of us know what we must do for The Kingdom. Bob knew and did it to the end. Ancient Future Worship is a product of that knowing.

    Northern Seminary gave Bob a posthumous award for the publication of Ancient Future Worship at this year’s commencement in May. How I wished he could have been there to receive it!

    John Kirn
    Interim President
    Northern Seminary

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  5. David - thank you for continuing to elucidate Bob's work so aptly. It is a blessing to those of us who love his life and work and worship the Triune God. Blessings to you and your ministry!!!

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  6. David, thanks for the positive review of the book. Like many people, my thinking about worship has been shaped a great deal by Robert Webber, and I appreciate the blog and interaction with his work. Keep up the great work!

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  7. Logos Bible Software is hoping to produce an electronic version of Robert Webber's Ancient-Future series, and these books are currently available for pre-order. I thought you might be interested.

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  8. Hello David--I have purchased this book and will read it eagerly. This very topic is what first allowed me to explore "other" religions. And I have thoroughly enjoyed some of Pelican's writings. I look forward to adding a new author to my list.

    Thanks for the review--and blessings to you in your work!

    Joyce

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